Cancer & Emotions Part III: A Guide for Patients and Family – Depression and Anxiety During Cancer Treatment

Cancer & Emotions Part III: A Guide for Patients and Family – depression and anxiety during cancer treatment 

You’ve been diagnosed, you’re going through treatment, seeing (too many) doctors, going back and forth, appointments, prescriptions, health insurance phone calls. All of a sudden, the enormity and terror of it all hits you like a ton of bricks. Your life has changed so drastically that you don’t even recognize it. Depression and anxiety during cancer treatment hits everyone, often in unexpected ways.

As if all of these this weren’t enough, you’re lying in bed at night (or first thing when you wake up in the morning) after an overwhelmingly “busy” and appointment-filled day and that feeling hits you. That empty, helpless, scared feeling; deep down in your gut. That worried “What am I going to do?” feeling.

Normal Reaction to Abnormal Situation

This (what I have described) is so common. It is actually the most common occurrence that people diagnosed with cancer describe. That’s if and when they get around to describing it because there is an unsolved mystery surrounding mental health: In general, people just don’t want to talk about it. The brave ones who do, tell strikingly similar stories, which means that depression and anxiety during cancer treatment is often part of the typical “package” of dealing with cancer. You are not alone.


Not Your Fault, Is Your Challenge

Things can get a little confusing too because sometimes it’s hard to tease out where the depression and anxiety are coming from. What is causing the symptoms is important because that will lead to a clearer understanding of how to treat the emotions and feelings. The majority of people think, “It’s me, there’s something wrong with me,” when in reality depression and anxiety during cancer treatment can occur due to a variety of reasons.

One reason is that some medications and specific treatments have depression and/or anxiety as part of their side-effect profile! If this reason is ruled-out, then maybe it is “you.” But I have news for you: if the depression and/or anxiety is coming from within you, then congratulations you are a normal human being. Experiencing depression and anxiety is a normal part of the diagnosis and treatment process.


It might be easier for you to understand this concept if you think of the opposite scenario: Imagine someone undergoing cancer treatment and not feeling depressed or anxious. Aside from this being very weird, it’s also not normal. You would think that this person is either in complete denial or that something else is seriously wrong. I know that we are all different and everyone reacts differently to change and stress, but the take home message here is that becoming depressed and anxious during cancer treatment is your body’s way of processing everything that’s going on. It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.


What You Can Do Now

Keep in mind that although it’s normal and part of the “process,” depression and anxiety during cancer treatment can be addressed and alleviated. Your physical health is not the only thing that cancer has touched. Your mind and in fact the very heart and soul of you at your core need healing, too. You can use this depression and anxiety to aid your entire healing process, to help you grow stronger, and to help you learn the skills you need to face not only this illness, but also life and all the ups, downs, surprises, changes, and challenges that life has in store. This is a special strength that not everyone has the opportunity to build on because not everyone has been given this challenge that you are faced with.

I work with cancer patients and their loved one. It’s a passion and a path. If you or someone you know’s life has been touched by cancer, please consider sharing my information with them.

“Release your struggle, let go of your mind, throw away your concerns, and relax into the world. No need to resist life; just do your best. Open your eyes and see that you are far more than you imagine.”
Dan Millman, Author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior


How can counseling help with heart disease and cancer?

How can counseling help with heart disease and cancer?

The benefits of counseling are obvious when we are talking about mental illness or everyday problems, like selecting a career or dealing with marriage issues, for example. However, counseling can also benefit people who have a high risk of having heart disease, as well as those who have a heart disease or those who have cancer. Even though these are physical illnesses, they can still be improved through psychological counseling. Let’s consider the benefits.



First of all, there is heart disease. Heart disease is a problem that affects many adults and that can have serious consequences for a person’s health. There are several factors that have been strongly linked to heart disease. These are an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and stress. All these factors have a negative influence on the person’s health and can lead to a heart problem.

How can counseling help with these issues? It can be used before the disease as a preventive measure and after the disease has occurred to deal with the consequences. Let’s consider the preventive approach first.

Counseling can be used as a preventive measure when it’s applied correctly. It can help a person develop and maintain a healthy diet, first of all. Often, unhealthy eating habits have a strong emotional component. For example, a person who binges on food is likely to have additional health problems and have an increased risk of heart disease. Or perhaps the binges are with alcohol, pain medication or other drugs. These binges may be related to a mental disorder and often times are linked to emotional problems where food or alcohol becomes a way to deal with them. Even if the person doesn’t go to the extreme of having binges, they still might keep an unhealthy diet due to a preference for “comfort food”, suggesting an link between emotional problems and eating problems. Counseling can help resolve underlying emotional problems, work with impulsive behaviors and develop new strategies to cope with emotions and to select and maintain a healthy diet.

Exercise is another aspect of heart disease prevention. Counseling can help a person find the barriers that are stopping them from having regular physical activity and finding a solution that can work for the individual. It can help the person stick to an exercise regime and to find a comfortable alternative, for example, a specific sport.

Stress is another important factor. Stress wears down the body and has been linked to a wide variety of problems, among them heart disease. However, an important aspect of stress is that stressful situations are unavoidable. Everyone experiences stress, however, it is the management, or lack thereof, of the problem that often determines the risk.

Counseling can help find new strategies for managing stress that are healthier. For example, many people smoke to relax, however, learning relaxation techniques can help them give up smoking and manage stress in a more adaptive way. Counseling can also help reduce stress levels by changing the perception of certain events and the thinking processes that go along with them. For example, if a person has catastrophic thinking, believing that any event will end on disaster, their stress levels might be higher simply due to their beliefs. Changing those aspects will significantly reduce stress.

After a heart problem has occurred, counseling can also be useful. It can help the person adapt to a new lifestyle and accept the situation that exists. It can aslo help change stress management strategies to reduce stress levels and the risk of another heart problem.



In relation to cancer, counseling can play an important role after the problem has appeared. It would be important for a person who has been diagnosed with cancer to seek out counseling services.

Firstly, a person with cancer might develop depression, anxiety or other mental health issues that require therapy. It is important to identify these issues and address them to help the person have a higher quality of life.

Counseling can also help the person and loved ones adjust to the disease and cope with the experiences of treatment, prognosis and other aspects of cancer that might be traumatic or painful for the person. It can also help the individual improve their relationships and find ways to adjust to the changes in their life. Counseling can help with treatment decisions as well. Sometimes, in cancer grief counseling is required for the person and the family members. The grief counseling process might be needed if the prognosis is bad, so that the individual and their family can begin working with the situation to make the most out of it and to work with the emotions that appear in this situation.

Cancer leads to an emotionally difficult experience for the patient and for their family members. Counseling can make the process easier and help the individual develop healthier coping strategies and to deal with the emotions like rage or sadness that appear in the situation. Counseling can also be very important for terminal patients and their families, as it can help them find ways to work with this very difficult situation. Counseling can address the different needs of cancer patients and be adapted to their individual process. It can become a resource and a way for the person to discover more resources in their own life and to adjust to treatment and the whole process.

In conclusion, counseling can help in the treatment and transition through many different health issues, among them, heart disease and cancer.


American Heart Association: ”Stress and Heart Health.”

More Than My Disease

More Than My Disease

I work with many people who are struggling in the face of great adversity and like many of us – I have my own history with survival as well. What frequently comes up whether I am working with a stage three cancer patient or a mother battling with addiction to opiates is a desperate need for a redefinition of how we see ourselves in the face of our disease. I find that at least initially, when people come to the point of accepting that they have a disease – they often see themselves as defined by it: “I am a guy with cancer”, “I am a mom who is an addict”, and so on. Rationally, they are aware that this is not the limit of who they are – but the emotive part of us is very powerful and not so rational.

At Live Better Live Now we have a saying, “Survival is science, living is art”. Doctors, hospitals, medicine, treatment, etc – these are all here for your survival. But life is more than that – more than just survival. Living, and I mean truly living is a way of being; the creative expression of our existence. In as much as survival is the biology part of the equation, living is the philosophy of it.

Now I know some folks will take issue with me discussing cancer and addiction in the same breath – so be it. I am a strong believer of the “disease model” of addiction and in my experience there is a great deal of similarity in the path that all of us travel when we face down a disease. Having cancer or addiction can arguably be said to be not up to choice.  Genetics, lifestyle, whatever plays into it – no one asks for the suffering disease brings. However, choice plays a very big role in what I do once I realize what I am faced with. A stage three cancer patient can opt for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, try a new experimental approach, make drastic changes to diet and health regimen, choose nothing and live out whatever time they may have and so on. They have choices. The mom in recovery from opiate addiction can get a jump start at a residential treatment facility, go to 12 Step meetings or other community support group, work with a physician / addictionologist and a therapist who specializes in addiction and so on. They have choices. In both cases and many others, we may not choose the disease we face – but how we address it is ultimately up to us; our choice. 12 step has a saying that fits well here; “You are not responsible for your disease, but you are responsible for your behavior.”

How I define myself is also my choice. I’m not just arguing for a paradigm shift in cognitive definition. The way I live is how I am defined in the world. If I see myself as the guy or gal with the disease – and live as such – then in many ways I am the limit of my ailment. I strongly encourage my clients to get out and get into the world – this is as important as many other aspects of their treatment. Beyond the community and support that is there for those faced with similar disease (cancer survivor groups, addiction recovery groups, etc) – it is so important to be actively engaged in positive communities that revolve around living life fully in – in this moment. There are so many options – the sky is the limit. Some of my clients are more physically challenged so they opt for joining book clubs, pairing up with others to go walking, setting up a weekly breakfast at a local diner. Those that have the physical capacity I encourage to join a gym with a friend, set up a group to bike rides, a weekly basketball game and so on. You can usually find local groups on the web. But let’s not forget one of the best options that anyone can find; volunteer. There is always someone out there who has it worse than we do and helping them to find joy for a moment ineveitably does the same for us. No matter how small your town or how limiting your physical health – there is surely a need you can fill.

Yes, sometimes is can feel like “pulling teeth”, like it takes everything you have to force yourself up and out – keep at it. Patterns become habits and that, in a simple sense is what you are creating; a positive habit. Remember, our personal integrity is the harmony between what we believe (thoughts) and how we behave (actions). There is a very powerful and freeing feeling that comes with living in integrity. You know you are not only your disease – so don’t live like you are. Life is not linear, but a path. “Survival is science, living is art.” Get going !

Thanks for visiting. I hope you come back again.

(PS – one of the best examples of living fully in each moment and not being limited by the mechanics of his survival is Reggie Bibbs. You can learn a lot about what it means to persevere and revel daily in what is most precious from his story. Check out his mission in action witht he foundation he created; JustAsk).

Ben Carrettin – More Than My Disease